By Lucie Shelly
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
On an unusually spring-like day in January, three ladies sit chatting at a garden picnic table long after their plates were scraped of food. But this isn’t an afternoon garden party at somebody’s home.
“Today we were all in the area, and when we thought, ‘Where should we go eat?’ we just said Weaver, you know – of course,” says Roberta Massé, a well-being coach from Union Grove Church Road in Chapel Hill.
Maria Darlington, Katherine Polk and Massé are all residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and among the three of them, they say they have been coming to Weaver Street Market for more than 20 years. Polk alone has been coming since the market opened in 1988. Massé says the women see the trees and tables as a place to gather, “If you had the choice of somewhere to meet friends, you’d come here.”
Ruffin Slater, Weaver Street Market’s co-founder and general manager, identifies the atmospheric draw of Weaver Street, but says there is another crucial aspect to sustaining visitor traffic.
“There are really two sides, the business and groceries, and that olden days feel of the marketplace, the social scene.”
The social scene that Massé and Slater are talking about is something that Slater remembers emerging organically with the market’s establishment.
“When we opened up, there really wasn’t people on the street in Carrboro, it was a quiet, sleepy place,” recalls Slater. “Now, the outside works really well, we don’t want to change any of that.”
While the outside remains a draw to the downtown area, that’s also the reason why the business is revamping some of its services.
“What we don’t want is for people to come and enjoy the space and then go buy their groceries elsewhere,” explains Slater.
If Weaver Street Market is the hub of Carrboro’s community, then it’s essential that it thrives economically as well as socially to ensure the sustainability of the place as a whole. But in the past five years, one big thing happened, says Slater. “Everyone sells organic.”
In these five years, the co-op members’ demand for organic, natural and local options at Weaver Street Market has increased, undoubtedly because more stores in the area are copying the Weaver Street Market concept. In response, the company initiated a five-year plan that managed to expand its stock of local products from 10 percent of its stock to 20 percent, says James Watts, merchandising manager of the store.
According to Slater and Watts, locally sourced produce was once enough to separate Weaver Street from other grocery stores. But with large chains like Harris Teeter and Trader Joe’s encroaching on Carrboro’s territory and ideals, co-op owners and the community as a whole are demanding more of their market.
“Other stores are copying their technique,” says Massé. “I only buy a few certain, specific things here [at Weaver Street]. I like the local options.”
Polk, a retiree from Cobb Terrace in Chapel Hill, is in a similar position.
“I’d buy a few items here, local or organic. But there are other stores around here now where I’d go also,” she says.
Now, the managers say Weaver Street is in the process of refocusing the store to keep up with an even more demanding community. The business side is under pressure to maximize itself as a true resource and benefit to the community – because that’s what gives it the competitive advantage.
“It’s a simple fact,” says James Watts. “Being community-owned is a huge advantage on its own.”
The larger organic and natural food chains try to contrive a local market feel because this suggests fresher and less traveled food. At Weaver Street Market, the co-op system and relationships with farmers mean that this philosophy is a reality.
“It’s not uncommon to walk through the store on a Saturday and see the same farmers shopping as the farmers in the pictures on the wall,” says marketing manager Lesley Linton.
Since the community and co-op members are now accustomed to a greater variety of goods, Watts says the store must find a way to balance that special sense of community with being a top-class grocery store.
“If we focused solely on the competition, we miss the real point, which is serving the community and the owners,” says Watts.
Gradually, says Slater, the company is taking steps to diversify their shelves and offer that desired variety of products.
“Being community-owned is not enough,” Watts explains. “To grow and thrive, we have to be good on our core mission, and the core mission is to be a world-class grocery store. So we are looking into what people want, and we are trying to offer that.”
The community card is the trump card, but the community also seems to want more from outside.
“No grocery store the size of Weaver Street Market can expect to get everything locally,” says Watts. “There isn’t a lot of packaged food produced locally, so that warrants sourcing them where they are made.”
It’s a new kind of transition. While Weaver Street Market strives to be the primary vendor for local food, it also needs to be the primary general grocer for local shoppers.
While the changes have been subtle, Slater says they’ve updated the building to make it an easier shopping experience, and they’re offering more of the major organic labels on their shelves. Watts says they are also keeping up with what other stores in the area offer, because a broader range of grocery options will be crucial to making Weaver Street Market more than just a place to visit for lunch.
“I come here to meet someone and I think in the back of my mind, ‘Oh, I must pick that up.’ It’s local and I like that, so I come for a few specific things. But,” says Massé, spreading her arms and leaning back into the sunshine, “this piece of real estate changes the store. It doesn’t have you know – this.”
Now, Weaver Street Market looks to have “this,” and more.
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